This is the way it goes. Sometimes you flush. Sometimes you’re bust. When you’re up, it’s never as good as it seems. And when you’re down, you never think you’ll be up again. Life goes on. Remember that. Money isn’t real. It doesn’t matter. It just seems like it does.
Want to know where all the drugs came from to fuel the sex and rock and roll? From George Jung, the foot soldier of Carlos Ledher and Pablo Escobar, two of the biggest figures in Colombia’s drug trafficking efforts of the 1970s and ’80s. At the height of his involvement in their operations, Jung was responsible for the smuggling of 85% of the cocaine sold in the United States. He amassed a bank account of over $100 million…and lost it all. His residence until 2014 is Otisville Federal Penitentiary. And this is his story.
George Jung (played by Johnny Depp) grew up in a poor working class family in Massachusetts. His father and mother (played by Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths) had marital problems, mostly related to the lack of money. He was a football star in high school, but ditched that life for the wonders of California. There, he discovered marijuana and the money dealing it could bring. A bust for possession and trafficking in Chicago landed him in Danbury Federal Penitentiary, but for Jung it was a blessing in disguise — he was cellmates with Carlos Ledher (called Diego Delgado in the film, played by Jordi Mollà). Ledher was in prison for car theft, but he was involved with the Medellin drug cartel headed by Pablo Escobar (played by Cliff Curtis). Even after his marriage into a cartel family to Mirtha (played by Penélope Cruz), the birth of their daughter Kristina (played by Emma Roberts, and later by James King), and his friend Carlos cutting him out of his operations, it was not enough to convince George to get out.
There’s two ways you can look at biographical films — as the story of their person on whom it is based, and as a dramatic work. Certainly you shouldn’t look to films as a historical record, but with biopics I think it’s important to know that the details are in place and that we are acting as a witness to the person’s life, not just a film with a character that happens to share a name with a real person. Blow is very close to a historical document of George Jung, condensed and slightly altered to fit a two-hour running time. It had the perhaps unparalleled involvement of the person on whom it is based. The screenplay was adapted from Bruce Porter’s book Blow, which had the direct participation of Jung, and both director Ted Demme and Johnny Depp met with Jung in prison to research the film. In the videotaped interviews with Jung included on the disc (more on the extras later), Jung notes that it is uncanny how accurately Depp portrays him in the film. From the research I have done online and from reading part of Bruce Porter’s book, it seems that the timeline of Jung’s operations with Ledher and Escobar has been altered slightly, and it certainly paints a prettier picture of Escobar than you will find in many other accounts — though, hmm, who are you going to believe, a guy who worked for him, or the United States Drug Enforcement Agency? Also, some of the names of surviving figures have been changed, no doubt to avoid the legal hassles that plagued movies like The Doors or The Insider.
As for the film as a dramatic work, it succeeds on nearly every level, though you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the résumés of the men behind the camera. David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes are the screenwriters. McKenna’s career started with a bang with the critically acclaimed American History X, but veered significantly with the lame sex comedy Body Shots and the superfluous remake Get Carter. Nick Cassavetes performed rewrites on the script. Cassavetes is the son of acclaimed cinema verité director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands. Like his father, Nick works both sides of the camera, but his works as a director (She’s So Lovely) and actor (Delta Force 3: The Killing Game) are checkered at best. Despite their previous failings, McKenna and Cassavetes wisely focus the story on George himself. The script does not flinch from painting its subject in an unflattering light, though it does show that Jung wanted to be a good father to his daughter. These scenes may be the script’s weak spots, because they try a little too hard to make George a sympathetic character, but they are nicely balanced out by Ted Demme’s direction and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Jung.
Ted Demme is possibly involved in Hollywood for the same nepotistic reasons as Nick Cassavetes: he is the nephew of Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of Silence of the Lambs. Ted’s career is marked by his frequent collaborations with comedian and actor Denis Leary; in fact, Leary was a producer on Blow. Demme directed Leary’s concert films No Cure For Cancer and Lock ‘N’ Load, as well as his theatrical vehicles The Ref and Monument Ave. To make his résumé here complete, he also directed the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence prison comedy Life. So, obviously, Ted Demme has strong inclinations toward comedy, not drama. Oddly, he’s a perfect choice for Blow. He brings the light hand to the film that it needs, showing the fun party atmosphere of Jung’s pot smuggling days and the hedonism of his wealthy cocaine-smuggling years. His gentle touch also makes the abrupt points where George’s world comes crashing down less of a bummer for the audience, at least until everything is finally over and he is busted for the last time. Demme’s visual style evokes the eras in which the film is set, from its bleached, faded look of the ’50s, to the tilts and zooms and freeze-frames of the ’60s, to the bright opulence of the ’70s. (If you’ll allow me a quick aside, writing “bright opulence of the ’70s” reminded me of a line from Austin Powers: “Yeah, and I can’t believe Liberace was gay. I mean, women loved him! I didn’t see that one coming.”) I like stylish films as long as the style is not the only reason to watch the film, and Blow fits the bill. The chic visuals are assisted by a great soundtrack featuring not just a great score by Graeme Revell, but also songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, KC and the Sunshine Band, Cream, Manfred Mann, and too many more to list.
What makes Blow really work is the phenomenal cast. In fact, that was my primary attraction to the film; as an über-fan of Tim Burton, I couldn’t wait to see a film with both Johnny Depp and Paul Reubens. I’m a fan of Depp’s work anyway; there are few actors that throw themselves wholeheartedly into a role like he does. It’s almost impossible to compare his roles, because he’s so convincingly different in each one. If anything, his work as George Jung reminds me most strongly of his title role in Donnie Brasco, but only because both characters are streetwise toughs. Paul Reubens everyone knows from his days as Pee-Wee Herman, the goofball kid in a bow-tie wearing adult’s body. I can’t think of a single other star whose career was ruined by an arrest and a $50 fine, and it’s such a shame because he is incredibly talented and has had to fight so hard to rebuild his career. He’s had a few minor roles over the last decade — Tim Burton gave him a cameo in Batman Returns and he did a voice in his Nightmare Before Christmas; he also played one of the dysfunctional superheroes in Mystery Men — but nothing will prepare you for the range he shows in Blow. Reubens plays Derek Foreal, a gay hairdresser who makes his real money plying drugs from his back room. He starts George in the pot-dealing business, and later is his California contact to move vast quantities of cocaine. Gay hairdressers are something of a cliché, but Reubens brings resonance to the character and makes him more than a one-note portrayal. (I’ll note that this is one of the characters that is altered from reality. George Jung did deal with a male hairdresser, but his name wasn’t Derek Foreal, and he was an ex-Marine. At this point, I’ll also note that Jung was drafted for military service in the Vietnam War. His affluent uncle pulled some strings to get him into the National Guard, but his unit was to be sent to ‘Nam anyway. George’s lawyer told him how to get out of it: be busted for marijuana possession. It worked.)
As for the rest of the cast, the standouts are Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths as George’s parents, Fred and Ermine Jung, and Cliff Curtis as Pablo Escobar. As bad as Blow makes George’s home life look, it was much worse. His mother came from an affluent family, and married his father because he appeared to be a man with a future. He owned a fleet of heating oil trucks, and for those of you who know the New England area, you know that that’s a valuable, expensive commodity in the harsh winters. He would’ve done quite well for himself, except he had a gambling problem and had to sell his trucks to cover his debts. Hence, the money problems depicted in the film. But I digress. I can’t recall seeing Ray Liotta in such a low-key, fatherly role. In many ways, his portrayal of Fred reminds me of my own dad — a little quiet, not always expressive, but I always know that he cares about me and loves me. I can’t really speak of Ermine in the context of Rachel Griffith’s career because, looking over her filmography, I’ve seen exactly one of her films: My Best Friend’s Wedding, and since I’ve blocked all memory of it out of my head I really can’t remember her in it. Ermine is the antithesis of everything movies and television have taught us about women of the 1950s and ’60s. She’s the anti-Donna Reed, and therefore must be a paragon of reality. I’m not an actor, but I can imagine it must be difficult to muster up feelings of bitterness, rage, and anger on cue, and I give Griffiths props for that. Cliff Curtis has played various ethnicities in his career — a New Zealand native in The Piano, an Iraqi freedom fighter in Three Kings, a Lebanese sheikh in The Insider — but you’d never guess that he’s as Australian as Steve Irwin. [Editor’s Note: A clueful reader corrected me: Cliff Curtis is from New Zealand; Maori, to be precise.] Here he plays the notorious Colombian drug kingpin very convincingly, though I find it hard to believe that such a vicious man was so soft-spoken and philosophical (especially considering one of the cut scenes).
Okay, so 1,800 words later, we get to the disc itself. Blow is the third DVD in New Line’s infinifilm series. Again, New Line shows why they are one of the most highly regarded DVD studios around. Video is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. Other than a rare dust speckle, the transfer is perfect. As I said, the film uses differing styles to capture the various eras represented. The colors of each are captured perfectly. You will not find a cleaner print from any film not transferred directly from a digital source. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, which gives a deep sound field that brings you right into the action. Especially prominent is the soundtrack, though it never overshadows or outbalances the dialogue, keeping it crisp and clear.
This is the first infinifilm disc I’ve had the pleasure of viewing or reviewing. I had my doubts that New Line could deliver on their promise to create a “new viewing experience.” After all, special edition DVDs have made rapid advances in the last two years, and it would be difficult to give more than what has already been given, such as with New Line’s own Se7en set. After watching Blow, I’m pleased to report that, while they haven’t created anything new, they’re using existing technology in unprecedented ways. Their goal is to create an immersive viewing experience, and they certainly have, but more importantly, it can be tailored to the viewer’s tastes. When viewing the film in infinifilm mode, prompts come up that give you one or more choices of additional footage to view. This might be an interview, or a deleted scene, or just more information on the topics or time period. I believe the first disc to use a similar feature was The Matrix, but instead of a nondescriptive icon, here you get a clear listing of what you’re going to see, and the choice to watch it or not. All these video segments are viewable from the main menu as well (see below for more details). One feature that you can only enable in infinifilm mode, and one of my favorite parts of the disc, was a running subtitle commentary on the events shown in the film. The information came at an appropriate speed, and never failed to be interesting. Director Ted Demme and the man himself, the real life, incarcerated George Jung, provide a commentary. I’m slightly disappointed that New Line couldn’t deliver on the original promise that this commentary would be recorded live, with Jung’s comments phoned in. What is provided is Demme’s commentary with comments recorded in interviews with Jung spliced in, balanced about 90-10 in Demme’s favor. It’s a great listen, with Demme providing interesting insights into the writing and filming, and Jung’s comments underscoring why he made the choices in his life that he did.
Here’s the details on the extras:
* Production Diary: 17:15 in 12 segments; gives behind-the-scenes looks at the filming of Blow.
* George Jung Interviews: 15:18 in 8 segments; Ted Demme interviews George Jung in prison.
* Lost Paradise — Cocaine’s Impact on Colombia: 25:00; documentary on Colombia’s history and the role cocaine played.
* Addiction — Body and Soul: 6:00; scientists, doctors, and other people involved with addiction talk about its impact on all aspects of an addict.
* Deleted Scenes: 26.57 in 6 scenes
* Character Outtakes: 9:36 in 6 scenes; scripted and shot but not used in the final film, these interviews with the characters talking about George Jung.
* Music video, Nikka Costa’s “Push and Pull” (4:19)
* Theatrical teaser and full trailer, 1:04 and 2:20
If you add all that up, that’s nearly 108 minutes of extras…for a film that’s 124 minutes. You can color me impressed. There are also several DVD-ROM extras, the most interesting being the full screenplay, which you can read along with the film. For those with DVD-ROM equipped computers, I’d counsel you to give this a spin; the script contains considerable material that did not make it to the screen.
I only had one problem with Blow: Penélope Cruz. Try as I might, I just cannot like her acting, or even looking at her. Her over-the-top histrionics, emaciated frame, and voice — always grating, grating, grating — may have matched the character, but I didn’t care for her one bit. I’m a big fan of Cameron Crowe, and would normally be looking forward to his next film, Vanilla Sky, with much anticipation, but Cruz’s involvement makes me a bit apprehensive.
Some people might have a problem that the film is too soft on drug traffickers and addicts. The movie is sympathetic to George Jung because it’s about his life, and he really wasn’t a bad person. His actions brought pain and destruction to millions of lives, but it’s not as if he was Hitler or anything. He gave them something they wanted (drugs), and they gave him what he wanted (money). That’s not to condone his life and actions, because I do think they were wrong, but there’s no reason a film has to make a judgment call like that. These same people might also have a problem with some of the comments made in the “fact track” subtitle commentary. Specifically, some of the comments made about marijuana, without coming right out and saying it, are pro-legalization.
While describing Blow to a friend, I said it was the “anti-Traffic.” It shows the “drug war” from the other side, and does so with a much better film — despite all its accolades, I did not think Traffic was a particularly strong movie. Blow is. It succeeds on many levels — it is entertaining, it is well crafted, and it has something to say that’s of social significance. I recommend that you at least rent it, and strongly encourage you to purchase it, because it meets all my criteria for a good purchase: the film is eminently rewatchable, the audio and video presentations are first-rate, and the supplemental content is worthy of repeat perusal.
A couple notes on the DVD. When I go to the options display on my Sony DVD player, I can see that it lists English subtitles. However, you can’t enable them from the remote, and I can’t find a listing of them on the menu. For the disc specs at right, I have not listed them. To enable or disable any of the infinifilm features, you must do so from the menu, and the changes cannot be made “on the fly.” If you turn on or off a feature, the film starts over. The menus can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated. I’m not marking the disc down for any of these shortcomings, but I do want you to be aware of them.
You know what’s a shame? That New Line released Blow so early in the year. It deserves Academy Award nominations for Ted Demme, Johnny Depp, and Paul Reubens, but will likely be overlooked because it was released in March. I hope they promote the bejeezus out of it come nomination time.
The Law has already sentenced George Jung to many years in prison, so no further rulings on his actions are necessary. The filmmakers are applauded for an excellent film, and New Line receives special commendation for their superlative DVD.